Outrage continues over white curator for Brooklyn Museum’s African collection

Brooklyn Museum New York


Two weeks after the Brooklyn Museum, New York, U.S., announced the appointment of Kristen Windmuller-Luna as curator of its African collection, outrage and condemnation have continued to trail the decision. Appointing Windmuller-Luna, a non-African-American to curate a collection of African art, according to critics of the museum, is an extension ‘white supremacy.’

Latest of such outrage came from an activist group known as Decolonise This Place. The group had issued a letter advising Brooklyn Museum in what it tagged: ‘Decolonization Commission.’ In the letter, the group noted, “We believe that this moment presents an opportunity for the museum to review — and fully acknowledge — its fraught history of acquisition, exhibition, staffing, and self-presentation with a view to reconstructing its operations, both internal and public-facing.”

Among those who criticised Brooklyn Museum’s appointment is a Nigerian-born poet, Teju Adisa-Farrar. “I’m not surprised, but still mad,” the poet wrote in an op-ed published by The Guardian, U.K.

In appointing Windmuller-Luna as the curator of African collection at Brooklyn Museum, a statement from the museum reads in parts, “Windmuller-Luna is a curator and historian of African arts and architecture, with a specialization in the early modern period and Christian Ethiopia. Her object-centred curating counters myths about African civilizations and artistic production by focusing on cultural specificity, artistic diversity, and global historical context.” Windmuller-Luna and Drew Sawyer were appointed to head two curatorial units at the Brooklyn Museum.

Windmuller-Luna, a curator and historian of African arts and architecture, got the Sills Family Consulting Curator, African Art, while Sawyer was made the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Curator of Photography. The Brooklyn Museum has more than 6,000 pieces across cultures.

Despite the controversy, the museum has supporters. Among such supporters is Steven Nelson, a professor of African and African-American art history at the University of California, Los Angeles. Nelson argued in a Newsweek publication that the outrage over Brooklyn “revolves around public misconceptions that African art scholars and curators are largely people of colour.” Nelson noted that “the field of African art history in the U.S. is largely white and female,” stating that “I am one of a small handful of African-Americans, who specialise in African art history.” And as regards Windmuller-Luna, specifically, Nelson said she is “richly deserving of the Brooklyn position.”

Being a curator and historian of African arts and architecture, Windmuller-Luna’s work include deconstructing myths about African civilisations and artistic production by focusing on areas “such as cultural specificity, artistic diversity and global historical context.”

Windmuller-Luna has a Ph.D. and M.A. in Art and Archaeology from Princeton University and BA in the History of Art from Yale University. Sawyer is saddled with photography collection within the museum as well as to device means to integrate it with the collection of other galleries for exhibitions.

As at the period of his appointment, Sawyer was Head of Exhibitions and the William J. and Sarah Ross Soter Associate Curator of Photography at Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio. Sawyer holds a Ph.D. in Art History and Archaeology from Columbia University, specialising in North American art and visual culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

“Kristen’s vision for a new, permanent collection installation that transforms how viewers relate to the arts of Africa is tremendously exciting for us as we near the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Museum’s pioneering exhibition of African art in 1923,” Deputy Director and Chief Curator, Jennifer Chi, stated. “Drew’s deep expertise in social and experimental documentary practices during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries will significantly augment our strong collection and will contribute to our history of championing contemporary artists who continue in this vein.”

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